Now, onto showing off! Yesterday, Scott described the evolution of his opening chapter and detailed some of his reasons for making the changes he made. To summarize briefly, he decided to start the story in the middle of the action and spread the backstory throughout the book or not use it at all. This decision included cutting out a section of prose that described the seasonal harvesting of eels.
In reading Scott's sections, many of our readers commented on how much they liked that eel section. It truly is beautiful, but I can understand why Scott would choose to delete it. He wanted a focused, driving story, and that approach works.
But, another aspect of art that I think doesn't get mentioned as much as it should is the idea that showing off in your work, flaunting your stuff, putting an astronaut on the moon, is an acceptable choice too. So often, we writers are told to be humble, to hide our gifts under the table until that rare occasion when someone honors us by offering to read our work. I think this approach is okay, but it's not the only approach out there. Plenty of art exists for the sake of showing off. Think of grand palaces, or statues so large that they become emblems of a country. True, these things might be overdone, but I think they also manage to serve another function: They celebrate life.
One of the reasons I love Tolstoy is because he wrote epic stories. Anna Karenina is no attempt to be humble. Tolstoy delves into the mind of young and old women, young and old men, lovers, the dying, the rich, the poor, even the clever hunting dogs. For me, seeing a man attempting to capture so much of nature and humanity in a single work is absolutely inspiring...so inspiring, in fact, that most of the time I don't care about writing anything original. I want only to be as good as Tolstoy.
Seeing artists attempt to do great things, simply for the sake of doing great things, reconnects us to living sensation. It brings out our sense of adventure and discovery. It reminds us to be passionate and unreasonable, even when so many other forces are trying to get us to be just the opposite. Although I fought it for a long time, I now believe that the essence of engaging art is beauty. And, beauty isn't really something that can be contained or focused. I think beauty overflows; it impresses us by its unwillingness to compromise. A beautiful passage of prose is beautiful on its own whether or not is contributes to the main line of the story. Because of that, a reader may really appreciate it simply because it is beautiful.
Scott, I'm not trying to get you to change your mind. I admire you for the decision you made. But, should you (or anyone else) decide to keep in a piece of prose simply because it is breathtaking, I personally think that is a valid decision.